Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How you can be Santa in the summer

I'm in Massachusetts for a visit home and enjoying the last hoorah of summer. I usually travel home once a year, whether I like it or not, due to the use it or lose it clause on my ticket.

I always find my visits home very refreshing. Obviously it's a wonderful opportunity to catch up with family and friends. It's also an opportunity for an update.

First, I always update the hardware. A good thing to check into if you are planning on relocating abroad is the cost and availability of items you are going to need for your personal and/or business use.

I throw these items into two buckets: Nice-to-have stuff and Wanna-Gotta-have stuff

Nice to have stuff
Nice to have stuff is very personal, like books or sometimes things you don't realize that you miss until they're gone, like Hot Sauce. Argentina is a loong way from Mexico in terms of spice. Sure you can find Tabasco in BA, but I like to have a little variety in my hot sauces and have some favorite brands like Frank's. Other things I've heard people bringing down are maple syrup, peanut butter, brownie mix. I'll even confess to bringing down stove-top stuffing once, but highly doubt it will make it in this trip.

Wanna-Gotta-have stuff
Stuff for work and play like computers and consumer electronics would fall into this category. These are typically higher dollar value items that go astronomic because, like many south american countries, Argentina levies high taxes on imported products. Unfortunately between these taxes and importer mark-ups the price can easily double for a product which often times is yesterday's model or an undesired configuration.

Just to give an example, an Apple corded keyboard I needed to buy costs $100 at the Apple store in Buenos Aires, but only $49 USD here. If I would have broken down and bought it in BA, I would have had to settle for the Spanish keyboard in a sense paying double for a keyboard in an undesired configuration. Instead I bought some crappy $25 local keyboard to get me by for a few months and made the apple keyboard purchase on my next trip. I still ended up saving about $25.

When it comes to trendy gadgets, prices are ridiculous. Check out Mercadolibre (South America's version of eBay) and lookup an unlocked 8 Gb, iPhone 3G. I just did...and it will run you $1,499.99 USD. If I compare apples to apples (sorry couldn't resist the pun), the same unlocked iPhone here goes for about $600 USD on eBay.

So as you can see, taking advantage of my one opportunity per year to buy Wanna-Gotta-have stuff is important. I always arrive home with a pent up purchase list that I've been adding to over the year. I go to the store with my list, checking it twice..feeling a little like Santa. Why Santa? Because all of a sudden I find many items on my list are for friends and I realize I will need a sleigh with 20 reindeer to get all the stuff back. But can you blame them for asking? I complain about the price differentials in dollars. Imagine if you are earning pesos!

So take the opportunity to be Santa to yourself and also to your friends. But be aware, you will have to prioritize and set expectations, less you should be seen as the Gringo Grinch. Unlike Santa's magic sleigh, your allotment with American Airlines is a measly 23 kilos per checked bag which fills up fast.

So now you know. Don't buy unwanted gifts for your friends in Argentina. Just consent to bring back one of their purchases and you can get a little bit of that Santa cheer any time of year. But be aware. Santa is welcomed by millions around the world with milk and cookies...you might be welcomed by customs.

What do you Gotta-wanna have from home and plan to bring back?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The candidates and online education. I'm all in!

You already have my opinion on the candidate's general positions on education in my previous post. But what about online education? Where do the candidates stand?

This one caught me by surprise.

From McCain's website:

John McCain Supports Expanding Virtual Learning By Reforming The "Enhancing Education Through Technology Program." John McCain will target $500 million in current federal funds to build new virtual schools and support the development of online course offerings for students. These courses may be for regular coursework, for enhancement, or for dual enrollment into college.

John McCain Will Allocate $250 Million Through A Competitive Grant Program To Support States That Commit To Expanding Online Education Opportunities. States can use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of AP Math, Science, and Computer Sciences courses, online tutoring support for students in traditional schools, and foreign language courses.

John McCain Will Offer $250 Million For Digital Passport Scholarships To Help Students Pay For Online Tutors Or Enroll In Virtual Schools. Low-income students will be eligible to receive up to $4,000 to enroll in an online course, SAT/ACT prep course, credit recovery or tutoring services offered by a virtual provider. Providers could range from other public schools, virtual charter schools, home school parents utilizing virtual schooling resources or district or state sponsored virtual schools. The Department of Education would competitively award the funds to a national scholarship administrator who would manage the student applications, monitoring, and evaluation of providers.

For some reason, I have this image of McCain and Obama playing no-limit Texas Hold'em. McCain is getting whipped all tournament long on Education, but apparently finds he has a hand to play in online education. So on the flop, without even a flinch, the wily Senator from Arizona pushes 1 billion George Washingtons to the center of the table.

The audience has to wonder..What will Obama do?
We know Obama has more than enough chips in Education to cover McCain. He doesn't have to win this hand to win the tournament, but if he doesn't.. he may be letting McCain back into the game instead of finishing him off.

Will he call? Will he raise? Will he fold?

According to Guidetoonlineschools.com an Obama campaign internal memo mentioned “Many online schools are for-profit ventures and may siphon money away from public schools,”

Though this memo is still on the rumor mill...it looks as though Obama will fold.

Let's consider the real weight of McCain's offer. If you check the Department of Education's website, their overall budget is $68.6 billion and they go to explain "Of an estimated $1 trillion being spent nationwide on education at all levels for school year 2007-2008, a substantial majority will come from State, local, and private sources."

So $1 billion while not peanuts, is not exactly "All in" either. So it's a political no-brainer for Obama. If I think about it, I'm a strong supporter of online education and while I'm disappointed by Obama's lack of initiative, I certainly will not vote for McCain because of this one subsection of an issue. I'm guessing most Democrats will feel the same.

Why would Obama not support online education?

First, often times online education is associated with the private sector. Should Obama support online education, it may look like he is ceding a point to McCain: some free market practices in education work. Of course, this is nonsense as the public sector is also involved in online education.

2nd, I mentioned many of the programs Obama does support are research-based. Online education is new and doesn't have as strong a research foundation as say, early childhood education, to back up it's claim of effectiveness. This is especially depressing when there is increasing evidence of the benefits of online education to minorities such as in this eSchool News article.

So Obama has a couple of excuses not to engage McCain on this issue. Which is a shame.

McCain has done well to put this issue on the table. While not the silver bullet to all our education problems, there should be a healthy debate and vision for the role of online education in our nation's educational system. I'd hate the only word on online education to be McCain's.

What do you think Obama's stance on online education should be?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Obama and McCain on Education. Part 1

Talking about voting..I thought I'd dedicate a couple of posts to the candidates.

Unfortunately, a tanking economy and the Iraq war get headlines over another important issue: Education. When it does get talked about, everyone agrees that when students in the world's hyper power rank 28th in Math ..something is wrong. So how do the candidates intend to fix it?

I searched the candidates names and the word "education" on youtube to do a video comparison and went directly to each candidate's website to get their own information on the issue.

(Disclosure: I'm a Democrat and Obama supporter so you can guess where this is likely to go)

McCain's website: "If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools."

When it comes to education, McCain believes in the
free market and small government. He proposes a mix of incentives for new and existing teachers, choice for parents (in particular school vouchers) and more local control of federal funds. He also proposes some initiatives in online education like virtual schools and online academic centers. He highlights one program in Washington DC that he will expand in Washington DC which I thought was a bit weird.. unless you live there I guess.

Obama's website:
Policy changes and more government programs in areas of need. He supports early childhood education with federal programs like HeadStart and creates another program for children 0-5 years old and mentions a daycare program. He specifically addresses problem areas such as Math/Science, Dropout rates, and supports Summer and after school programs with a mix of policy changes, funding promises and strategies. Like McCain he puts emphasis on recruiting and rewarding teachers. In addition he will create a tax credit to finance college and streamline the federal financial aid process.

My impressions:
If you have a specific issue within education, it's very difficult to figure out from John McCain's website, what he is going to do. His information is at a very high level and does not back up any of his statements with any statistics or evidence. His strategy is to appeal to people's common sense. He does not specifically address many of the urgent needs of our educational system. The solution to problems are to give parents the option to send their kid to a different school. The only strength is that on the relatively few initiatives he proposes (on page 2), he clearly states where the funding is going to come from..Title II or Title I.

Obama policies and initiatives are clear. Every problem highlighted is backed up with statistics as to why it is a problem and research-based solutions. Literature I have read about improving student achievement puts a heavy emphasis on early childhood education. Obama's 0-5 plan and Head Start put this research to use. His initiatives address the main problems our country faces in education today: achievement gaps in Math/Science, high dropout rates and accessibility to higher education. He goes further to address specific areas like summer learning and even touches upon flash points like English Language Learners. My impression is that Obama has a deep understanding of what the problems are, and a clear view of what it will take to address them. It is obvious Obama will spend more on education. I felt convinced that he will spend intelligently. What I did not walk away with is where the funding will come from.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Relocated abroad?...then Vote!

A comment left by a reader of the US and World Report article caught my eye. The person stated, "Living abroad is not for the vast majority of Americans because it requires a certain mentality of taking responsibility for ones actions while at the same time being willing to accept things you cannot change."

I liked this comment because it seemed to synthesize very well, point # 5 "Be flexible, but be principled" from my Top Five List for entrepreneur relocators in the previous post.
What I'm not so sure about is whether this mentality is only applicable to American citizens or really could be applied to anybody living abroad.

That being said, one thing that is only applicable to US citizens is our right to vote in the upcoming election. So for a couple of minutes, we need to turn off our living abroad mentality and stop accepting the fact that we cannot change anything where we find ourselves.

(full disclosure, I am a founding member of Democrats Abroad Argentina)

Here the recently founded, Democrats Abroad, Argentina works to register voters of any party affiliation at the weekly gathering in Sir Will's Pub and are planning several events around the Democratic National Convention, the debates and more. Full details can be found on the Democrats Abroad Argentina Website and on Yanqui Mike, who is the founder of the organization in Argentina.

If you are not in Argentina, Democrats Abroad is a worldwide organization. So unless you have relocated to the dark side of the moon... you don't have any excuse not to participate. Vote!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Top Five for entrepreneur relocators

Here is my top five for those who want to stop dreaming and move to a new country to start a business.

1. Learn the language!
Can you start a business in a new country and not speak the language? Of course you can. But if you have any local component to your business...it will take you longer and cost much more to get it off the ground. Invest the time to get a solid grasp of the language in which you will be doing business. Spoken and written! This will pay off not only in time and money, but also in good will generated with any local suppliers, customers and staff.

2. Don't be shy, but don't rely solely on expats
Expats are an excellent resource. They often have been through the same learning curve and can give you helpful advice or make introductions to valuable contacts. If possible, make contact with them before you even arrive.

Here in BA some popular online groups used to suss out thoughts and ideas are BANewcomers, the new Internations.org (invitation only) or forums like BA Expats and Good Morning Buenos Aires to name just a few.

You can also do a search for blogs in your area of interest. I have a few on my blog roll, but there are lists far superior such as Bloggers in Argentina.

Once in-country you can hook up with a number of groups like the Expat Connection, Buenos Aires International Newcomers (BAIN), Club Europeo or even visit the American Chamber of Commerce. I also like to cruise the jobs section of craigslist in Buenos Aires to keep a pulse on local hirings for expats.

But be aware! As you can see, connecting and hanging out with fellow expats is easy. However, it is no replacement for local connections. In fact, your best expat contacts are those who have already figured that out. Make the effort to meet locals. If you have invested the time to learn the language, it's also great practice!

3. Do your homework
Every country has their own way of doing business. Determine how local rules and norms will apply to your business. Things like legal quagmires can suck your time, energy and money. Monopolies and oligopolies do exist and can be difficult to crack. Take time to understand the local business culture and prepare yourself to deal with it.

4. Double prepare yourself for the unexpected
You may have done your homework, but every entrepreneur knows that unexpected or uncontrollable things happen all the time. You have probably made a conservative estimate of costs in your plan... doesn't matter. When starting a business in a foreign country double the margin of error you typically use. For example, if you think something costs X, you usually might anticipate X + 15-20%...Double it! This is especially true for time. Things such as getting a contract signed, finding a local supplier or even opening a local bank account can be unexpected major hassles.

Also having some extra cushion helps when it comes to riding out your everyday economic volatility or political instability. Recent examples in Argentina are the exchange rates, inflation and the recent conflict with the Campo. For example, the USD in Argentina has lost nearly 5% in the last month and though not "official", inflation rate guess-timates range from 25% to nearly 40%.

5. Be flexible, but be principled
There are ways to get things done..then there are "ways" (wink, wink) to get things done. The Brazilian "jeitinho" or "little way" is a classic example. Knowing how to work the local system is often where your local contacts become invaluable. However, be aware of what they are doing and how they are doing it. Question things that don't pass the smell test. If you're not sure about something, leverage your network of locals and fellow expats. They may have experienced something similar or can point you in the direction of someone who knows. But if something simply is against your principles, then don't do it. Besides the fact that standing on your principles is the right thing to do, you've already doubled your margin for error, so you have no excuse not to. It may take a little more time, energy or money, but you will be better off in the long run.

These are five points I'd bring up to would-be entrepreneur relocators. What would you add to the list?